Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pride and Consent

It's Gay Pride!  A time to be all colors, come out (no pun intended) to be who you really are sans shame, remorse, regret.  People show their fabulosity to the extreme, bringing out their best self, and talk about love as an encompassing, open to all concept!

I idealize Gay Pride.  Truly, there's more of the American cultural norm at Pride than I'd like to admit.

It's Friday, and I'm at work.  Bonney* and I are talking about working the store's booth at the Pride Festival and appropriate dress for the occasion.  I relate that I had this conversation with Bear* and we'd agreed that wearing a rainbow bikini top would be appropriate, except I don't have one.  Bonney responds "Oh, well if you wanted to wear those rainbow pasties at Pride, the store could comp them to you."  Sweet.

Now it's the morning of Pride, and I'm trying to get my fabulous on.  I've read the directions on the back of the pasties package, applied them thusly, donned my short shorts with my silver belt and I'm just working on my eye make-up.

There's a knock on the door.  I've been waiting for my friend to arrive; and although I'm surprised she's knocking, I go and answer the door.

...Pasties at the ready, I'm certain the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door did not expect what they got from me!  I didn't expect them either.

Working at Pride Festival was an experience in staying on track.  I didn't expect the sort of attention my nearly-bare breasts attracted.  I suppose that's silly, but I'm used to and comfortable being undressed.  It barely occurs to me that it's different for others to witness.

When the first person asked if he could take my picture, I was surprised.  Why me?  It took me a moment to realize that what I was doing, is part of what people come to Pride to see and experience.  I was fine with that picture; and the picture after that too.  But after a while, I started feeling put out.

I was busy and kept getting interrupted.  I noticed myself, not looking into the camera while a picture was taken.  I was keeping an eye on my next move, our wares, our customers, and trying to be polite and efficient with those wanting photos.  When I went on break, I was concerned that I wouldn't make it to the HIV testing tent (where I have my yearly test) because of the photograph requests.  (Happily I made it, was the very last test of the day, and met someone I hope will contribute to this blog.)

The attention I received that day came in three main categories: people who wanted a picture, people who wanted to tell me something because of what I wasn't wearing, and people who hit on me.  Several people wanted to commend my bravery, which was really in their own heads because you kinda' need to be afraid of something if you're going to be brave doing it.  One woman came on quite strong talking about how I am way too pretty to not have a girlfriend (she was assuming I don't).  I appreciated her directness and also wasn't interested.  One guy was clearly attracted to me but lacked social skills to be appropriate.  He hung around, and returned over and over, bending over the table running hands over his head and staring at me.  Despite some of these sorts of exceptions, most of the attention was positive to neutral.

Two exceptions stand out.  The first was being censored by a police officer.  I don't actually know what the law here says about dress.  I had assumed that wearing something to cover the nipples for women was street legal.  I didn't argue with the officer, I asked if I was mistaken about the law.  She didn't say, which suggests she doesn't know the law either, she only said it was a "family event" so I needed to cover up.  So, maybe the law is different when there might be minors in attendance?  I pointed out to her that those kids are going to have breasts someday too (at least half of them).  She wasn't impressed.

I was pissed.  I wasn't being inappropriate with kids; I wasn't jiggling my breasts in any faces -kids or otherwise.  Kids should get to know what bodies look like in non-sexual ways.  And many of these kids used breasts as a food dispenser early on.

I felt she was telling me that there was something inherently wrong with or shameful about my body.  That they shouldn't be seen, because they're offensive.  And this is a tough call because there are plenty of times I don't want to see someone's body.  I don't want to see the body of someone I don't know when there's any air of sexual request.  And also sometimes when I do know them.  That kind of situation happens often, and it's also really hard to legislate because it's about the energy of intent.

I can say that I didn't have that energy of request at Pride, but did people read it anyway?  Did the people who saw me that day, consent to seeing as much of me as they did?  Is it likely enough at Pride that one will see those sorts of body parts, to assume everyone knows that -and thus by coming out, they have given informed consent?

The other experience of note was when several women stopped by wanting a picture with me.  They didn't want to take my picture inside the booth where I was trying to work.  So, I stepped out hoping they'd be quick.  One of them asked me if she could touch my breast.  I was impressed, being as how a woman earlier had assumed she could grab me and surprised the crap out of me doing so.

I said no to this woman.  She pouted but contented herself with putting her hand below my breast in an imitation of touch.  The other woman who wanted to be in that picture, was disgusted.  She huffed and sputtered and whirled around to her picture taking friend and I heard something about how touch was naturally being offered because my breasts were visible.  A picture was taken.  I stepped behind the booth again.  The friend of the aggrieved woman ran back and shouted at me "Your titties are saggy!!!"

She wasn't trying to be funny; she was upset and trying to hurt me.  I fail to understand how someone can be so upset that they don't get to touch my breasts when the extent of our relationship has been seeing me and asking "hey, can we take a picture of you?"

Lack of understanding around consent and individual rights to one's own body is disturbing.  Seeing that lack of understanding in women, disturbs me especially. There's a certain assumption that women will understand this issue, and it is proven to me time and again, that this isn't true.  The messages she's swallowed about behavior and power make her dangerous to herself and others.  And particularly, she's probably not a friend or mother or daughter someone could go to when assaulted and get support.  This is someone who thinks that what you wear matters, that it dictates the choices of other people who are apparently brainless automatons incapable of self awareness.  Here's a nice, concise way someone else put this issue:

Consent is a bigger issue than most of us like to think about.  It's not about rape and sexual assault, that's where you see it addressed most.  Consent is everyday.  And it takes a beating in so many ways so often, we're inured to it.

How about the online form for opening a bank account that required your phone number and then told you that, when you gave it, you're consenting to have them call you or text you whenever they want regardless of cost to you?  That's called coercion, and it goes hand in hand with consent violations.  What about the exuberant dog someone was walking while you took your morning constitutional, and they allowed it to jump on you and drool excessively?

We don't dicker on these things.  We're not personally offended, or we don't know how to make a complaint, or the violation or threat thereof is minor.  But if we take the time to think on it, could we make boundaries easier for others and ourselves?

What about those Jehovah's Witnesses?  Did they consent to seeing that much of me?  It's the dream of many to do something funny, ironic or rude to those who bother us at our homes.  And this is often justified by pointing out that "they started it!"  For instance, one might say that I didn't consent to have them proselytize me.  And therefore, my possibly shocking appearance to them is justified.  Tit for tat (until the whole world is blind), to mix quotations.

I don't mean to lessen the seriousness of consent violations with examples that ring less personal.  But by becoming aware every day of small ways we feel uncomfortable with being pushed, forced, coerced and bullied, we more easily identify the feelings associated with consent violations.  It scares me that violence between people is so veiled.  In a recent study in Britain, of girls 13-18, more than half of them have experienced sexual violence at the hands of a partner and thought it was normal!  I think the scope of this study was too small to make generalizations.  However, this seriously rings true for me in my life and of women I have known.

Let's be clear, violence between people is a problem, seeing it as normal is a problem, and not understanding basic tenets of consent is a problem.  Let's do our homework and become aware, if not for your sake, then for someone you love.

* Names changed as usual